"Cause anytime we mention our condition, our history or existence/They calling it reverse racism."
—Nas' "N.I.G.G.E.R. (The Slave & The Master)"
Contrary to the recent flurry of reports regarding the name change of Nas' ninth studio album from Nigger to Nas , Nas himself confirms a change, but sets the record straight about the record's title. According to AllHipHop.com, Nas will allow the album to be released untitled, claiming that his fans are fully aware of his original naming intentions.
The publicity surrounding the album previously known as Nigger has been ubiquitous— from Nas wearing a Nigger shirt at a high-profile awards show to an audacious and financially incisive divestment threat from former industry-insider-turned-reactionary-politician, Assemblyman Hakeem Jeffries (D-Brooklyn, N.Y.).
Jeffries threatened to pull $84 million in New York state pension fund money out of an investment in Universal/Vivendi. Thus, despite L.A. Reid's public support for Nas' artistic freedom, there was no way that his bosses were going to allow Nas his first amendment rights at the risk of losing $84 million in a lose/lose public relations conflict.
The pressure on Nas to change the title of his album came from all corners: his label's parent company, political figures, talk show pundits, other rappers and even some hip-hop aficionados. To the extent that any of these entities are interested in a dialogue about the N-word (its past, present and future) their impulse to silence Nas belies a deeper misunderstanding of hip-hop culture and the generations of young and not so young people who subscribe to it.
I don't recall as much controversy surrounding the release of NWA's Niggaz4Life album in the early 1990s or Tupac's Strictly 4 My N.I.G.G.A.Z. released shortly thereafter. For Pac N.I.G.G.A. meant "never-ignorant-getting-goals-accomplished" but for Niggaz With Attitude (NWA), it meant just about the opposite — something more like: "always-ignorant-never-getting-anything-meaningful-done." Yet hip-hop culture always has and continues to embrace these contradictions.
Although I think I understand the insidious business rationale behind the blatant censorship of one of hip-hop's finest artists (i.e. you can be a nigger-rapper but you can not be a rapper who critiques the concept/term "nigger"), I am unsettled by the numerous talking heads who line up to muffle Nas as if he is somehow incapable of critically engaging American history and the etymology of the N-word.
He does this directly in "N.I.G.G.E.R. (The Slave & The Master)" and more ironically in "Be a Nigger Too." In "N.I.G.G.E.R. . ." Nas directly addresses and acknowledges the history of the term even as he challenges young people to understand that they are both slave and master; "the question and the answer." Through detailed narratives he paints images of inner city living in order to render the socially invisible 'niggers' through his lyrics. Clearly Nas is invested in using his music to engage his audience of listeners in a critical dialogue about the N-word. I cannot imagine how someone (anyone) can listen to these lyrics and somehow think that Nas is condoning the use of the term or licensing anyone in his audience to divorce the N-word from its awful history.
If we are actually interested in young people talking about their use/misuse, understanding/misunderstanding of the term, please know that Randall Kennedy and Dick Gregory will not (and have not) been heard by the hip-hop generation.
The NAACP's ceremonial burial of the N-word will not be heard by the hip-hop generation and Jabari Asim's treatise on the N-word, brilliant as it is, will likely not be heard by the hip-hop generation. Nasir Jones will be heard, and I suspect that if his name was an acronym (say, Nigger Against Society) he might have fared better in this free-speech battle by positioning himself as the typical Bad Nigger instead of a thoughtful one.
James Braxton Peterson is an assistant professor of English and Africana studies at Bucknell University and the founder of Hip Hop Scholars, Inc.